Irish Times view on special education: Long road to total inclusion

We must be satisfied children’s best interests will be met educating them in mainstream classes

Earlier this week the National Council for Special Education warned that Ireland may be in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by "segregating" pupils with learning disabilities in special schools and special classes. It said other countries have been criticised by the UN for not educating all children together in mainstream classes within their local school.

The council said Ireland should consider moving towards a “total inclusion” model, where all children are educated side-by-side regardless of their level of disability. It says there is no substantial evidence that students with additional needs have better outcomes in special schools or classes.

By contrast, it points to the Canadian province of New Brunswick as an example of where a fully inclusive system is delivering better results for children with special needs.

It acknowledges that such a step would require considerable changes to teacher training, school buildings, class size, and therapy supports. But it says this is a human rights issue and there are broader benefits to society from all children learning together.


It will take a monumental shift to make our special education system fit for purpose

The council’s suggestion has drawn a largely hostile response from teachers and campaigners to date. It is easy to see why. Many children with special needs who are currently in mainstream settings in Irish schools are not receiving the kind of supports they need. Many such children end up falling out of school or are placed on reduced hours.

Many teachers have little or no training in responding to the often complex needs of children with special needs. There is little confidence that these issues will be addressed any time soon – and every suspicion that a “total inclusion” model is simply cover for cost-cutting in a sector where costs are mounting year after year.

What we do know for certain is that the Irish education system is falling woefully short of meeting the needs of many vulnerable pupils. Hundreds of children are without appropriate school places in the current academic year. Many more do not have access to the kind of therapeutic supports that are vital to helping them meet their potential.

Some parents face a brick wall from the State in trying to access appropriate help. Children’s constitutional right to an appropriate education, as a result, is being violated on a daily basis. The UN Convention rightly sets the aim of a fully inclusive education system. But the reality is we are nowhere near ready to do this.

It will take a monumental shift to make our special education system fit for purpose. We cannot even begin to contemplate closing special schools or dismantling special classes until we are fully satisfied that children’s best interests will be metin mainstream classes. This means providing the right supports, proper training and physical changes to schools. Anything less risks yet more children slipping through the cracks.